How Silicon Valley can tap working mothers to close its gender gap

by pregnancy journalist

Over and over, Emily Holtz Patterson heard the same questions when she started looking for work a few months after the birth of her second daughter:

“So, I see this gap on your resume… ”

“Are you sure you want to come back? Are you sure you want to go back to work?”

“Tech changes so fast. How are you going to keep up?”

Patterson has a degree in management information systems and 10 years of tech industry experience; it had never taken her more than six weeks to find a job. But for the first time in her career, she was sending out volleys of job applications, and getting only a handful of screening calls in return. When she did interview, she found herself repeatedly answering the same question: what was this mysterious gap on her résumé?

Patterson’s experience reflects a dilemma in the tech world. Faced with growing criticism of Silicon Valley’s gender diversity problem, many tech companies have invested in feel-good programs that encourage girls to pursue STEM learning, like Girls Who Code and Iridescent, or to study computer science in college. But it’s only just starting to work on the other side of equation: providing the training opportunities, flexibility, and mid-career on-ramps that make it possible for women to stay in the tech world after having kids.

2013 analysis found that half of female STEM professionals leave the field within 12 years, compared with less than 20 percent of women in other professional fields. These women aren’t switching to other fields; rather, STEM professionals are much more likely than other professionals to leave the workforce altogether after having kids.

The reason may be an industry culture that stymies mid-career women. A 2016 report from the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT) blames the retention issue on “workplace conditions, a lack of access to key creative roles, and a sense of feeling stalled in one’s career.”

That makes women coming back from maternity leave or child-rearing — often referred to as “returning women”— a key test for the industry. Returning women can be rebuffed by an industry that is often criticized for its institutional and cultural biases against women — or they can be embraced as a way of closing the industry’s gender gap.

“The tech industry is desperate for highly skilled workers,” observes Lisen Stromberg, author of Work, Pause, Thrive: How to Pause for Parenthood Without Killing Your Career. “They need to reframe their hiring policies so that women want to work for them.”

Those hiring policies can be particularly tough for women who are trying to return to technical roles. During an interview process, “a lot of what you’re asked is, ‘tell me about a project you’ve worked on recently’,” says Kathryn Rotondo, an iOS developer who now works for online training company Udacity. Rotondo is the creator and host of Motherboard, a podcast that collects stories from mothers working in the tech field. Rotondo’s own experience returning to development work after the birth of her son a decade ago informs her understanding of the subject.

“The team I was on at the time was an ActionScript development shop,” Rotondo recalls, referring to a programming language that was widely used in the days when Macromedia Flash ruled the interactive web. “The iPhone had come out, and Flash was being killed, so the work was drying up on my team… I came back to work from maternity leave, and a month later, I was let go.”

Suddenly, Rotondo was in the middle of a job hunt — but with a rapidly depreciating skill set, and a baby at home. “I remember my colleagues going home and studying up and making passion projects on iOS,” she says. “I was going home to my baby, and still nursing at night and being exhausted and not having the wherewithal to keep up with changing tech. That made me a less valuable person on my team, and made it harder to find work when I was out of work.”

GSVLabs. While she was initially overwhelmed by all the new tech tools she had to learn, it didn’t take her long to get back up to speed. Soon, she started hearing from other women who envied her return to the working world.

“There were so many people in my community who wanted to do what I just did,” she tells me. “What I heard over and over was ‘I have no confidence.’ It hit me that there is this huge pool of talent that is not being deployed.”

a partial list), typical returnships are designed to ease the return to work for people (often women) who’ve been out of the workforce for an extended period of time. Returnships offer a combination of paid work experience, mentoring, and skills training, and may last anywhere from eight weeks to a full year. At the end of a returnship, a returner may or may not be hired as a regular employee, but at the very least, they have more recent experience on their résumé— and some new skills and contacts.

While returnships have occasionally been criticized for exploiting the insecurity of mid-career returners, Flynn thinks they can play a useful role in bringing women back to work. “Diversity and inclusion people love the idea of hiring returners,” Flynn says, “but then you get to the hiring managers, and they get scared that these people are dinosaurs. So returnships are low-cost, and low-risk. They give both people a chance to try it out.”

That kind of mid-career entryway may be particularly valuable for women who are seeking their first technical positions after having children, like Eraina Ferguson. Ferguson decided to move into the tech field when she was expecting her third child.

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